Congress has now returned to televised deliberations on the Iran- contra affair. In terms of the proprieties of governance, this is right and proper. In terms of U.S. foreign policy, the hearings are misleading, for they ignore the fact that the United States is fast approaching a reckoning with the future of Central America. The policy of the Reagan Administration toward the region--more particularly, toward Nicaragua--is galloping toward its end. And there is nothing to put in its place.
U.S. support for the contras was in political difficulty even before the revelations that have led many Americans to wonder whether the government was, for many months, seriously out of control. Perhaps if the United States had devoted vast resources to the effort to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, it would have succeeded. That point can be debated.
Now, in the bright light of the congressional hearings, aid for the contras is less politically appealing than before. This Congress may not cut off all funding, lest it provide grist to the political mill on the question of who "lost" Nicaragua. By the same token, this Congress will not provide enough assistance to give the contras a victory over the regime in Managua.
If the Sandinistas are concerned only about "socialism in one country"--to use Stalin's phrase--then the biggest loss will be the political rights of anti-communist Nicaraguans. But if President Reagan is right, if the Sandinistas are inherently revolutionary and expansionist, then other states in Central America will remain at risk and the United States will be saddled with regional difficulties for years to come. It would be arrogant to state that one or the other alternative is certain to come true. But with the contras in disarray if not in defeat, there is simply no U.S. government alternative--either from the Administration or from Congress--to cope with an uncertain future in Central America. Washington is leaving the mess to be cleaned up by the people who will be in power after January, 1989. That is surely arrogant as well as irresponsible.
The latest outside effort to promote peace--by President Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica--is approaching its climax. Arias' plan would entail an immediate halt to U.S. aid for the contras, with pluralism in Nicaragua to begin emerging no later than 90 days afterward. The stick would be gone; the Sandinistas would be expected to transform the nature of their revolution as an act of faith.
Arias himself has little hope for his own proposal, and he has accepted characterization of it as "naive." That may be fair comment about the willingness of the Sandinistas to grant at the bargaining table what they have not conceded on the battlefield--namely, critical dilution of their political power. In any event, the Arias plan will not be tested, because the U.S. government will not call off the contras to test the Sandinistas' good intentions. Stalemate is as certain tomorrow as it is visible today. And--again to cite Arias --from the perspective of Latin American observers, the blame for failure will be placed mainly on the United States.
There is a third way, however. This is for the Reagan Administration to change its priorities: to put first the goal of providing security in Central America, and subordinate the aim of obtaining democracy in Nicaragua. The former goal may be attainable; the latter certainly cannot be achieved by means so far employed by the United States. To be sure, it is difficult for any U.S. government ever to admit that promoting democracy abroad is not its central interest. But there is no chance of developing a strategy that will protect our key interests if we continue to to hide behind the fiction that, somehow, the contras will prove successful in disarming the Sandinistas and turning them into democrats.
The Administration and Congress need to compromise. The former should postpone the goal of democracy in Nicaragua in favor of bargaining, now, on a security agreement that will end the export of revolution, deny foreign bases and severely limit military forces in Central America. For its part, Congress should provide continued funding for the contras as a lever to try achieving this limited goal of Central American security--not the pipe dream of imposed democracy that cannot be gained without commitment of U.S. combat forces and major loss of life.
Putting first things first does not mean giving up the pursuit of democracy in Nicaragua. That can be sought through other means. But at least the United States would have a policy with some hope of success. Today's course does little but provide the Sandinistas with a convenient excuse for further clamping down on what pluralism still exists in Nicaragua. The alternative, however, requires vision and political courage that so far has been lacking in the White House. This has left Congress with no alternative but to aid and abet the pursuit of failure.